The Obamanauts Are Rebranding as Evil

It’s not just Jay Carney, the former Obama spokesman who now leads capital’s side of the class war at Amazon. A whole cohort of Obamanauts — those bright, young idealists who wanted to change the world — have positioned themselves in roles in the private sector where they can most effectively be part of the problem.

Then White House press secretary Jay Carney during his first press briefing, on February 16, 2011. (Jewel Samad / AFP via Getty Images)

Working inside a presidential administration certainly opens doors. Between the public exposure that comes from a cabinet or senior staff position and the connections inevitably made by anyone employed at the highest levels of the US federal government, White House alumni enjoy an enviable range of choices once they hit the job market — not to mention tremendous latitude to put their talents and experience to work for worthy causes should they so choose. Given the particular frustration felt by many in the Obama administration after the Democrats’ 2010 midterm wipeout, a post-political career comes with the added perk of real professional freedom. No longer faced with Republican obstructionism, the sluggishness of the federal bureaucracy, or the chaotic developments of an unstable world, those who served an especially popular, two-term president are now blissfully unconstrained — and thus at liberty to advocate for the progressive vision that was so often thwarted when they worked in government.

Former White House press secretary Jay Carney is a case in point, having recently been in the news thanks to a series of ham-fisted social media posts on behalf of his chosen employer: Amazon. Charged with overseeing PR, Carney (and a number of Amazon surrogate accounts) has been taking direct shots at figures like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as renewed scrutiny comes down on the company amid its efforts to defeat a widely followed union drive in Bessemer, Alabama. “With all due respect, Senator @BernieSanders, you’re wrong on this,” said Carney from his personal account in response to a video supportive of the effort. “We treat our employees with dignity and respect. We offer a $15 min wage, health care from day one, and a safe, inclusive workplace.” The spirit of this statement is, to put it mildly, difficult to reconcile with the company’s exhaustive push to defeat unionization — to say nothing of its well-documented workplace safety issues or the (recently reconfirmed) revelation that its workers are sometimes forced to urinate into bottles (a reality explicitly denied by the PR machine Carney helps oversee).

Carney, of course, is far from the only former Obama official to plant his professional flag in corporate America — or advocate against the interests of its most underpaid and exploited workers. In 2015, Robert Gibbs — a fellow press secretary for the administration — became global chief communications officer for McDonald’s while the company lobbied against raising the minimum wage (a practice it didn’t officially cease until 2019). California’s Proposition 22, which could see gig drivers earning as little as $5.64 an hour and has been dubbed “the most radical undoing of labor legislation since Taft-Hartley in 1947” by labor law professor Veena Dubal, has the fingerprints of Obama alumni all over it: its intellectual framework having been quite literally codesigned by former Labor secretary Seth Harris, whose post-administration work was summarized by the Prospect’s Max Moran last year as follows:

A labor law professor and former counsel to then-Labor Secretary (and Prospect co-founder) Robert Reich, [Harris] rose to serve as acting secretary in 2013 and early 2014. Then he revolved out to the employer-side BigLaw firm Dentons.

Among other clients, Dentons has represented Walmart in union and NLRB disputes, helped a Louisville restaurant association kill minimum-wage laws for that city’s servers, protected management in multimillion-dollar pension cases, and defended executives from white-collar crime enforcement. The Public Policy and Regulation practice that Harris is part of has helped navigate businesses through Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Securities and Exchange Commission rulemaking, represented Citibank in a derivatives regulation matter, and worked for other global insurance companies and banks.

Harris more recently served as an adviser to the Biden-Harris campaign.

The Obama alumni network’s associations with Prop 22, Uber, and Silicon Valley certainly don’t end there: Tony West, who served for several years as associate attorney general (and is also Kamala Harris’s brother-in-law), works in a senior role at the company and helped guide its efforts to prevent drivers from securing even the most basic workplace rights. David Plouffe, Obama’s 2008 campaign manager and former senior adviser, took a job at Uber in 2014 and was later fined by the Chicago Board of Ethics for illegally lobbying fellow Obama alum Rahm Emanuel — best known these days for his role in helping cover up the murder of a black teenager by police — on behalf of the company, which he left in 2017 for a gig with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg (Plouffe still sits on Uber’s board). Between consulting for reactionary politicians like former British prime minister Theresa May and former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, Jim Messina, who managed Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, these days runs an outfit which boasts “a growing portfolio of technology and start-up clients in Silicon Valley” including Tesla, Google, and, of course, Uber.

Others, meanwhile, took a more conventional Wall Street avenue to lucrative work after public life. After six years of letting the banks run wild, Obama attorney general Eric Holder returned to his old white-collar defense firm Covington & Burling to represent many of the same firms he’d been lax about regulating or prosecuting while in office. In 2013, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner made a beeline to private equity firm Warburg Pincus — a company with associations to predatory lending.

When it comes to Obama administration alumni taking lucrative gigs in Wall Street and Silicon Valley, this list is by no means exhaustive (this is to say nothing of Obama himself, who’s made an absolute killing giving speeches to corporate clients). Even for hardened cynics of the political class, the shift from 2008’s rousing message of “Change we can believe in” to cashing in at corporate America has been so nakedly unsubtle it’s sometimes defied belief. When that message failed to actualize itself between 2008 and 2016, a common refrain from some Democrats held that some combination of events and political constraints had doused the progressive ambition burning in the Obama administration’s fiery liberal soul. Since departing the White House, countless alumni have had more freedom than most to take up professional opportunities of their own choosing — and the choices many of them made strongly suggest otherwise.